Fancy Footwork

After being banned in Cuba, kickboxing is making a run for South Florida fight fans

In 1995 Castaños traveled back to Cuba, where he visited Guillermo Fernandez in prison. "I had been to the U.N. High Commissioner in Chile," Castaños said. "And I was constantly lobbying the Chilean ambassador [in Havana] to help Guillermo. One time I went to visit Guillermo. He gave me his prison shirt with his name printed on it, and I gave him the T-shirt I had on. The prison shirt was dirty and smelled bad. I put it on, walked into the [Chilean] embassy and asked to speak to the ambassador."

A few months later Fernandez was deported to Santiago, and his family followed. Fernandez joined Castaños working with the other kickboxers in the Chilean capital. In 1997 Castaños formed a sanctioning organization, the Chilean Full-Contact Federation. By then the team he had envisioned had materialized, fifteen to twenty strong young men, though not all with professional prospects. Castaños and Fernandez felt Julio Vargas had potential, and a promising kickboxer from Havana, 22-year-old Cesar Marnallelis, had just moved to Santiago (his father is Chilean) with a letter of introduction from his trainers, one of whom was Guillermo Gual.

The kickboxers had been training at a giant government-run sports complex, but at one point the team was banned for several months. One of Chile's top sports officials disliked Castaños and Fernandez. "He knew me in Cuba," Castaños said dismissively. "He's a communist. There are a lot of communists in Chile, you know. He insulted me one day in an office, and without even hesitating I hauled off -- boom! -- and hit him hard in the face with my fist. He fell to the floor, stunned. After that we got kicked out of the [sports complex] gym."

Julio Vargas learned self-defense growing up in a rough suburb of Santiago, Chile
Steve Satterwhite
Julio Vargas learned self-defense growing up in a rough suburb of Santiago, Chile
Julio Vargas learned self-defense growing up in a rough suburb of Santiago, Chile
Steve Satterwhite
Julio Vargas learned self-defense growing up in a rough suburb of Santiago, Chile

For the Cubans it was a bit like the bad old days in Havana, though lacking in fear and quiet desperation. The kickboxers attracted as much attention as possible to their plight, training on the street in front of the gym in pouring rain, picketing, appearing on TV and radio shows. After four months the team was allowed back in.

Castaños and Fernandez, however, had no intention of staying in Chile permanently. This past February they secured visas to compete in a tournament in Orlando. Once here in Miami, the two men sent for their families and applied for U.S. residency. "When Eric went to Miami is when the federation started to decline," explained Vargas, who became the Chilean national kickboxing champion in 1998 and successfully defended his title the same year. "There was a lack of resources, which meant we couldn't buy equipment and things like that. In Chile the government gives very little support for sports; sports are not very important there."

It was mainly for that reason that Vargas, too, dreamed of following Castaños and Fernandez to the United States This past March he flew to Miami on a tourist visa, his plane ticket paid by Castaños. Vargas appeared on both the July 15 and November 19 cards and both times quickly knocked out his opponents. Currently he is ranked No. 2 worldwide by WKO in the 126-pound weight class. "To be a true professional, I had to come here," he said, taking a break from training one recent evening at the Tiger Kickboxing Gym. A small Chilean flag was sewn on to one leg of his satiny green trunks. "Eric and I talked it over and planned everything. My dream is to become a world champion. But the first thing I have to do is bring my family here. I've sent all the necessary [immigration] paperwork to my wife in Santiago." (They have a year-old daughter.) The matter of his own expired tourist visa is being resolved, he added confidently, offering no specifics.

Since Vargas moved to Miami, other kickboxers from the Cuba-Chile connection have joined him here. All have similarly ambitious goals, and at the moment all are operating on faith because, so far, most have little to show for their dedication to the sport. Their faith is fixed not just on their own talents and skills, but on two men who've taken perhaps the biggest risks in the whole endeavor: Jesús Castañon and his son Jesús Sandor Castañon.

This past March the Castañons rented a large first-floor space in a Westchester strip mall. They installed punching bags, mirrored the walls, and named the place Tiger Kickboxing Gym in honor of El Tigre, who is a partner in the enterprise. The younger Castañon, who just turned 23, quit his job selling real estate and began peddling his vision of classy kickboxing shows to prospective sponsors.

Their connection to kickboxing wasn't through sporting expertise but through ties in Cuba. The elder Castañon had lived next door to Guillermo Fernandez in Havana until 1980, when Castañon, his wife, and three-year-old Jesús came to Miami in the Mariel boatlift. "When I was around eight years old, Guillermo was born," recalled the 47-year-old Castañon. "I showed him how to play baseball and basketball. We also did karate together, then I came to the United States, so I left Guillermo. He later became a champion. I've always stayed in touch with him and his family."

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